WASHINGTON — We don’t typically even think about breathing, but some recent headlines about gas stove emissions, worries over toxic chemicals in the air, or even just this early onset allergy season might have you thinking a little more about the quality of the air you breathe.
You wouldn’t be alone: a viewer asked us about the health benefits of using an air purifier, so our researchers looked into it.
Are there health benefits to using an air purifier?
The World Health Organization
The Environmental Protection Agency
Dr. Anjeni Keswani, allergy specialist at George Washington University School of Medicine
Yes – but its effectiveness depends on the type of purifier, what kind of pollutants you’re dealing with, and where you put it.
WHAT WE FOUND
Purifiers types: to filter or not to filter
Consumer air purifiers tend to come in two general types: filter based air cleaners and electronic filter-less air cleaners. For most people, you’ll want to opt for a filter-based model.
The Environmental Protection Agency warns filter-free air cleaners can generate high amounts of lung-irritating ozone. Instead, the EPA says air purifiers with a HEPA filter – a High-Efficiency Particulate Air filter – are a good thing to look for when starting the search for a residential air cleaner.
Once you install a purifier, remember that it only works if you keep it on.
“It does need to run rather continuously for it to be effective for many people,” said Dr. Anjeni Keswani, who adds it should be running at least whenever people are in the room. The purifier should also be rated to properly filter the size of the room it’s placed in.
For portable air cleaners – the standalone units you can place anywhere in a room – check the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) or the room size rating (many companies will do the math for you). Make sure the cleaner is powerful enough to handle your space, otherwise it won’t be as effective.
Pollutants: gasses vs. particulates
How much benefit you get from your air purifier depends on what pollutants are causing trouble. There are two main categories – gaseous contaminants and airborne particulates – and they can come from many different sources.
“An air purifier may be helpful in those instances or when people are cooking and they have a gas stove to bring down the nitrogen dioxide levels,” said Keswani.
Research shows filter-based air purifiers can help remove harmful gasses from the surrounding air, but ventilation is probably more effective. So if you’re cooking, try opening a window and turning on any kitchen vents.
If gaseous pollutants are a big problem in your space, it might be worth looking into specialized air cleaners designed specifically for gas absorption.
While they’re okay at removing gasses, filter-based air purifiers are best at catching tiny airborne particles like pollen, spores, and pet dander.
“If you look at a portable system, we’re looking at about, depending on the study, a 20-70% reduction,” said Keswani. HEPA filters in particular are good at removing a variety of particles of many different sizes.
Health impacts of using an air purifier:
“It does seem to reduce asthma symptoms in children,” said Keswani, “likely because it reduces air pollution levels and also because it reduces allergens.”
Airborne particulates are most often mentioned in relation to allergies and respiratory issues, especially highly potent irritants like pet dander. There’s even some evidence that breathing contaminated air early in life can increase the chances of children developing asthma.
That’s not the whole story though. Ultra-fine particles can actually make their way into our bloodstream and cause more systemic problems.
“I think we think a lot about air pollution as affecting the lungs and the nose and maybe the sinuses as well,” said Keswani. “But there’s actually a huge amount of literature on how particulate matter affects heart attack risk and stroke.”
According to the World Health Organization, household air pollution – especially fine and ultra-fine particulates – can lead to serious health problems like stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer. Extended exposure can even be fatal – causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths per year according to the WHO.
However, research cited by both the EPA and WHO shows that cleaning the air can help keep you healthy. Exactly how much depends on how well you implement and maintain your purifier. And research is ongoing – Dr. Keswani points out that people live life outside the home too, so it’s a bit tough to study the specific health benefits of air purifiers.
“At the end of the day, cleaner air certainly can’t hurt” said Keswani.
If you’re considering adding an air purifier to your life, here are some tips.
Put your purifier in the room where you spend time and in a fairly central location. Also, keep it running: research seems to show the portable purifiers are more effective than HVAC filters because they don’t just rely on heat or a/c kicking in to work.
Make sure to replace the filter regularly as directed. Also, use the right filter for your product – adding an extra strength filter to a unit that isn’t designed for it can actually reduce effectiveness.
Don’t forget to clean. When it comes to health and allergies, the air isn’t your only concern. Keswani recommends using mattress and pillow covers, washing bedding at least once a week in warm water, and cleaning surfaces with a wet rag to collect dust.